For years, Preston Love Jr. has struggled to figure out how to close the gaps.
Year after year, residents in North Omaha don’t turn out to vote like people in western suburbs.
But this year Love, founder and CEO of the civic engagement group Black Votes Matter, set ambitious goals. By the general election he wants 10,000 new voters and 25,000 people from North Omaha to give their civic say-so. The primary would have been a perfect benchmark along the way.
And then, of course, the pandemic happened.
Officials switched tactics from trying to get people to show up at the polls to convincing them to vote remotely. And while the 140,000 requested mail-in ballots across the county is nearly double the entire turnout in 2018’s primary, the disparities have grown more stark.
In North Omaha zip codes, the percentage of ballots requested by registered voters, while better than its entire turnout in the 2018 primary, is less than half the county’s average and more than 30 percentage points behind areas like Millard or Papillion.
Love said the same force hospitalizing and killing people of color at disproportionate rates amid the pandemic, is also stifling their civic voice in a time where it couldn’t be more critical.
“The reason for that is the same reason for these vote by mail numbers,” he said, “It’s the economic realities of these communities, they’re in poverty, they are in, the case of the virus, in front line situations that make them more vulnerable to contact.”
In light of that, Love doesn’t care about catching up or closing gaps this primary. If people ask him whether they should still make the trip to the polls in person, his answer does not waver.
“Let me give you a bolded, all caps answer to that question,” he said. “Absolutely not.”
Chris Carithers, Douglas County deputy election commissioner, also hopes the numbers are low but said if voters choose to attend any of the 201 voting precincts, they can expect ample protection.
For primary day the Secretary of State’s Office sent Douglas County 2,000 boxes of N95 masks, 1,200 face shields, 200 large tubes of Clorox wipes and 237 sanitation kits including gloves, masks and disinfectants for each poll worker. They’ve even got 93,000 pens stockpiled, enough for each voter to have their own.
Voters will also stand six feet apart and have to wait as one of about 1,200 volunteers, 200 short of a usual voting day, wipes down voting booths with disinfectants between usage.
In some cases voting precincts have had to double up, but Carithers said those will take place in spaces with ample room for social distancing.
The county’s preparation follows controversial primaries in states like Wisconsin where crowds gathered in endless lines that kept some from voting and might have led to new infections.
While predicting anything right now seems futile, Carithers said he feels confident Douglas County won’t run into the same issues. Officials have had ample time to get most voters signed up for mail-in ballots and they haven’t cut precincts or lost volunteers.
Carithers hopes it all adds up to a slow in-person primary day.
“This is such a different election than anything else we’ve ever had,” he said. “My personal guess would be 15% would be high.”
As for disparities between East and West Omaha, he said these are trends the election commission sees every year and problems it partners with community organizations like Black Votes Matter to solve. However, the differences are more stark, especially given the context this could dramatically increase civic engagement this year and in the future as about 95% of people who signed up for mail-in ballots this time, asked to get reminders about the option in future elections, Carithers said.
“Is it alarming? Yes,” he said. “Surprising? No.”
Other zip codes in East Omaha also fall below the county’s average for requested mail-in ballots per registered voters.
In South Omaha the number of voters requesting mailed ballots is about 10 percentage points lower than the county’s average. However, zip codes in that area also have the lowest voter registration in the county.
Heartland Workers Center, which focuses its efforts on communities with high rates of inconsistent or non-voters across the state, rerouted a large-scale get out the vote campaign in a matter of weeks earlier this year, said Jill Lynch-Sosa, Senior Director of Regional Operations
Instead of knocking on every available door with hordes of volunteers, they’ve turned to phone banking with a pared down team of about 47. Over the last few months, they’ve made about 70,000 calls, reaching about 7,000 people with voter information.
On those calls they persuaded many to request mail-in ballots, but Lynch-Sosa said they did not try to dissuade people from voting in person which many said they planned on doing.
“We certainly don’t want to take the option away, but we want everyone to be safe,” she said.
As the primary passes and leaders look toward prepping for the general election this fall, Love said there’s need to be urgency around the social inequities highlighted by the pandemic. Chief among them, healthcare and protections for workers, but also maintaining a strong civic voice. That’s more important now than ever, Love said.
Whoever’s the next president will make some important Supreme Court nominations that exist in tandem with the future of legislation like the Voting Rights Act. If people don’t vote in large numbers now, Love said it could mean the dismantling of those Civil Rights era touchstones, he said.
“We could start all over,” he said. “And that’s kind of dramatic.”
Four resources on voting safely check out this UNMC guide
To find your voting precinct check the Douglas County Election Commission’s website.